By Lys Morton
Food banks in Canada find themselves playing a numbers game. In March 2019 alone, 2326 food banks across the nation recorded a total of 1,084,386 visits — down marginally from the previous year, but still a staggering statistic.
Like other food banks, Nanaimo Loaves and Fishes has struggled to keep up with the demand. Founded in 1996, the organization initially used traditional methods. “Typically, food banking is about appealing to the public for donations,” explains executive director Peter Sinclair. “’Hey, we’ve got a bunch of hungry people, donate food to us. We’ll give it to the hungry people.’”
But for the last eight years, Loaves and Fishes has been playing a different game.
“We made a strategic decision in 2012 to dramatically change how we operated,” Sinclair says. “So instead of just appealing to the public, we’re going to go after the huge amount of food waste that’s out in our communities and specifically go after the food waste at the retail level.”
An estimated $31 billion worth of food is wasted in Canada each year, with more than half of it tossed before it even reaches the consumer. With numbers like that, the issue is not so much scarcity as accessibility. Food is available, but numerous barriers get in the way of those who need it. Loaves and Fishes took a bold risk to address that challenge.
“We were spending $10,000 a month buying milk,” says Sinclair. “Someone donates money to the food bank. We take the money, we go buy milk. No one’s going to complain about that, right? That’s a great thing. And you can get the photo-op of the little kids getting milk in the food bank and everyone wins. It’s awesome.
“[But] we’re like, you know what? We think there’s a better option here. We’re going to take that $10,000 dollars a month and we’re going to invest that in wages. We’re going to invest in infrastructure, and we’re going to go after this food waste. Now, that’s risky, because from a donor perspective, going and buying milk—yeah, that makes sense. Paying fuel, wages, hydro bills? Not as fancy a photo op, at least in the short term. Over the medium-to-long term, when you start showing the food that’s coming in, it just becomes a no-brainer.”
The risk has paid off. Operating on a cash budget of $700,000 in 2019, Loaves and Fishes now finds itself with a fleet of six vehicles, an industry-sized walk-in freezer, and a technique for food recovery that helps it keep up with a growing clientele. In 2019, the organization provided $4.6 million worth of recovered food at nine different locations in Nanaimo to over 7,000 registered users, many of them using the service twice a month.
Loaves and Fishes also supplies food through other agencies. “[We have a] partnership with the Schools Foundation,” says Sinclair. “We provide the vehicle, they deliver food.” Other partners include the 7-10 Club and the Boys and Girls Club.
“We’re also looking at expanding our operations to other communities as we get invitations,” he says. “We were invited to go up to Port Hardy to provide food bank services there, and we were invited to deliver food to the Nanoose First Nation.”
The Port Hardy location was started in the fall of 2019 during a food shortage crisis sparked in part by an extended forestry workers’ strike. Although northern Vancouver Island is already served by the Harvest Food Bank, Loaves and Fishes was approached by Food Banks BC to begin delivering additional food to the area twice-a-month. The Food 4 All program now operates out of St. Columba Anglican United Church, where local volunteers help with distribution. Over 430 people have accessed the service to date.
For Sinclair, the choice to offer food to other non-profits, and now to other communities, makes the same sense as the initial decision to target local food waste.
“The idea is if we’re supplying that food to other non-profits, they’re able to do the work that they do better. So, for example, an agency gets food from us. They save money on their food budgets. They no longer buy it. They can take that money and they can redeploy it somewhere else in their organization.”
While Loaves and Fishes has increased food accessibility on the Island, some of the surplus collected from retailers around Nanaimo cannot be passed on. And that in itself presents a new series of obstacles.
“Last year we collected 1.2 billion kilograms of food,” Sinclair notes. “Over 400,000 kilograms of that was not suitable for human consumption. It has to go somewhere. You don’t just kind of compost that in your backyard—you have to have a system to handle that. So most of that goes to local farmers.
“But we still end up with stuff that we can’t give to farmers. That is food that’s not suitable for human consumption, that the farmers won’t take, that we’re not able to actually get into the compost because there’s too much packaging. We’re going to take that to the dump.” But the cost can be onerous. “Just one pallet is probably $60 in dumping fees.”
That’s a lot of non-consumable food waste to properly deal with, and Sinclair has seen the effects when it’s not. “I’ve been to food banks all over B.C. that are running food recovery programs and they’re getting buried in that food waste. And they’re not sure they can continue.”
But for Loaves and Fishes, the trajectory is continued growth. Their Empties-for-Food bottle deposit program is expected to make over $80,000 in 2020, and with retailers working with them more and more, the organization is now looking for a larger warehouse. Additional space would help them keep up with the food, garbage, and processing that comes with operating a program of this scale.
“You need to be courageous, and you need to take risks,” says Sinclair in the video above, referring to the secret of Loaves and Fishes’ success. It also takes a lot of hard work. But so far the combination of all three has paid off for a lot of people on Vancouver Island, who would otherwise be going hungry.
Video by Lys Morton. Content producer: Erinn Sturgeon.
Photos: Nanaimo Loaves and Fishes